Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14thc bawdy tales of Canterbury pilgrims is an early example of the Picaresque in English literature.
Picaresque (from Picaro a rogue or rascal), in the English tradition, is an anti-hero, as in Henry Fielding’s, History of Tom Jones and found in Dickens’ first six novels including The Pickwick Papers.
They are often a story of one fated to mishaps and often disaster as Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh’s, 20thc Decline and Fall, the innocent victim of his own naivete.
One of the greatest exponents of the genre was the Scot, Tobias Smollett born Today in 1721.
Famous for his long, formless tales of farcical, improbable adventures, it was a style derived from the works of Cervantes whom he translated into English.
Most of Smollett’s output is little regarded today including his most praised book, the bawdy, letter- form, Humphrey Clinker considered comparatively respectable in the 19thc as most of the obscenities were hidden under puns: very Victorian!
His masterpieces were Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle, pornographic in a harmless way, but containing as they do passages of sheer farce.(1)
Smollett writes of the mercantile, professional middle class, often cousins to landowners, whose manners were those of the then aristocracy-duelling, gambling and fornication.
Sensibilities by the 19thc had changed-the French Revolution had happened-and we see the rise of the industrial mercantile class with its Evangelical, Low Church, Puritanism.
So with Charles Dickens we see the ‘new’ Picaresque, Pickwick Papers and the nearest we get to risque is when the much travelling Mr. Pickwick mistakes the wrong bedroom. With its endless ‘to-ing’ and ‘fro-ing’, involving fantastic adventures, this early book employs, in true Picaresque style, a willingness to sacrifice probability for hilarious jokes.
His other early ‘itinerant’ books involving the hapless Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, for example, are more sombre.
One of the seminal books in the Picaresque genre in the 20thc, was J.B. Priestley’s (1929) Good Companions, where a hapless carpenter Jess Oakroyd, leaves his Bruddersford home to become involved with a travelling theatre group, for ‘adventures on t’road’.
(1) Dickens’, David Copperfield names these two books among his childhood favourites.
Ref: theguardian.com. Alex Larman. 20.3.2008. Waugh and Declaration of Comic Intent.
Ref: The Guardian: Humphrey Clinker, by Tobias Smollett. Stuart Kelly. 12.8.2013.
Ref: bl.uk/Image of Tom Jones.
Ref: wikipedia.org/good_companions/Pic Image.